Boro: The Beauty of Thrift

I’ve become really interested in other forms of textiles lately. Lots of stuff such as Middle Eastern rugs, Navajo weavings, American quilts, and Japanese boro. Boro comes out of Japan’s countrysides, where cloth used to be very precious and valuable. Since disposing things wasn’t an option, the wives of farmers and fishermen would patch and mend bags, blankets, futon covers, clothes, and even diapers. As a result, you get these beautiful objects with hundreds of shades of indigo, often pieced together with a type of rough running stitch known as sashiko

Boro used to be a source of embarrassment for many families, because of its association with poverty, but in more recent times, they’ve become collectors items. If you’re in NYC, you can check some out at Shibui (at least until they move locations in a few weeks) as well as Sri Threads. The second is an appointment-only gallery run by Stephen Szczepanek. You can read an article about him at the New York Times, and check out his wonderful blog, where he posts about the things he’s found in Japan. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite entry, but this one would be a contender. Notice that the stitching forms an interesting geometric pattern across the whole garment. As Stephen writes, those shapes represent masu — a type of wooden box used to measure rice during Japan’s feudal period. 

The price of boro can really range. Sometimes you can find them on eBay for $150-300, but the designs tend to be somewhat simple. Nicer pieces can be found at galleries and speciality auction houses, but in the thousands of dollars. I’m hoping to find a nice, but affordable, piece in the next year, and use it to line the inside of a black leather moto jacket. Fingers crossed. 

(Photos via Sri Threads’ blog)

Actual Japanese Workwear

Check out these absolutely stunning Japanese firemen coats. Known as Hanten coats, these were worn by Japanese firefighters in the 19th century. At the time, the technology to spray water at a high-enough pressure hadn’t been invented yet, so Japanese men had to fight fires by creating firebreaks downwind. Doing so, however, put them in danger of catching on fire themselves, as hot embers can travel up to a mile. So to make their coats more protective, they were continually doused with water. 

The symbols and designs you see are for several things. Some are just for decoration, of course, while some signal the fire crew that the wearer belonged to. Others are lucky symbols or refer to a heroic story, giving the wearer encouragement to be strong and courageous. 

You can see these coats in person (along with many other awesome things) at Shibui, a shop in New York City for Japanese antiques and collectibles. They’re moving at the end of September and are having a sale right now to lighten their load. Select items are discounted by up to 50%, including lots of boro fabrics, which is a kind of heavily patched and mended Japanese textile. You can see examples of boro here.

For those of us outside of NYC, Shibui has a Google+ page you can admire (they’ll take phone orders, if you’re interested). There’s also a book titled Haten and Happi, which is all about traditional Japanese work coats.